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With Regina Barreca

Handing Out Humility, Humor


(This months column is adapted, with permission, from a letter Regina Barreca received from a former student.)

In September I got a full-time gig at a local high school. Not the school I attended, but the toughest, poorest public school on the outskirts of the biggest city in my state. Okay, my state is decidedly not New York or California or even Illinois, but its still a whole American state Im talking about here, and this school is ranked the lowest.

I recruit at-risk students throughout my high school -- grades 9-12 -- and pull them into my class, where the goal is to prevent them from dropping out, joining a gang, or whatever it seems they are most at risk of doing. It's kind of tailored to each student, this program. At the very least, the objective is to provide them with some knowledge of the workplace they inevitably will be throwing themselves into.

We try and make them feel unique in a good way. Single them out in a good way.

Because a lot of these kids have been singled out -- not in a good way -- their whole lives.

It is my job to say to these students Listen, you're a trouble-maker. I get it. You hate your parents and I get that, too. But you are also innately smart and that has nothing to do with the environment you were born into. You have a capable mind. Use it.

But this is not Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds. These kids will not be enrolling at MIT next fall and they certainly won't be writing autobiographies on how they traded the mean streets for Wall Street.

That was what I had to learn. It was a hard lesson for me as a teacher. On my darkest days, I feel I have a maintenance job. I might as well be the janitor.

But every once and a while, a light goes on -- and I get such a kick out of the absurdities of the world and my part in it, that it seems to make it worth the effort.

This is what happened when I had my first real taste of administrative responsibility in a public setting.

Part of the program is to have an Initiation and Installation ceremony towards the beginning of every academic year (although it usually ends up happening in the middle by the time the school gets its act together). The students were recruited, after all, and there are other students who want to be in the program but who didn't get accepted. So this ceremony is a way of saying, "We see something in you guys that you might not see yourselves. You've got at least a spark of promise, and that's why you're here."

It's important. It solidifies our group, shows our colors.

One funny thing is, though, they all act like they don't want to come back to school in the afternoon to participate in some stupid ceremony, but when they walk through the door in their nicest clothes you can see that they're excited. They want to be recognized for something, for anything, they just don't want you to notice.

Which means, of course, that a big part of my job as a teacher is noticing.

Before the event, I worked with the students to make this ceremony the best it could be, but lets just say that it wasnt shaping up to be the Academy Awards. No money, no time, no extra help -- the only thing I had was a lot of pressure from myself to get it right. Or close to right. You know Ive always put a lot of effort into a project when I know people are depending on me. Or when I couldn't get out of it.

What happened? Lets say the true focus of the ceremony became the need to downplay the catastrophe it really was -- to make it look endearing. The certificates were handed out, but not without some snags. Some of the students did not show up, for example, meaning that the certificates, which were in alphabetical order, now had huge gaps between names.

So the woman at the podium who was reading my class list would say someone's name, say 'Karen', and I would have to try and rifle through a dozen Matts and Jimmys and Mikes before finding her certificate.

It became clear that I couldn't do it fast enough.

So the students would cross the stage, shake my hand, and receive a certificate with someone else's name on it. Id whisper "This isn't your certificate but don't say anything, we'll take care of it in class tomorrow," which their parents probably mistook as my offering a friendly, hearty, sincere "Congratulations."

I took to the podium right after this, just as the students were sitting down, and before I could utter word one -- I'm nervous enough here; about 80 people showed up when I was expecting 15 -- a girl who had been bent on revenge ever since I sent her to the office and got her suspended, shouted, "Mr. H! You forgot to sign these!" And then those 80 faces stared up at me.

What I said (and instantly, too, you would have been proud) was this: "I didn't forget. I did this to prove a point. How many times am I telling you that you have to put your names on things? Every day, right? So take this as proof that when you forget to put your name on important papers, documents, certificates, you will wind up looking vulnerable and silly. But I did not forget."

Of course, everybody knew it was -- well, lets call it a lie for the sake of politeness -- but the parents laughed and that's the most I could ask for.

Some of the students laughed, too, although others scowled because I got myself out of a pit that they could not manage to do for themselves on a daily basis. To those scowling ones, I had to stop myself from looking down at them and saying into the microphone, "That's why I'm here and you're there."

Instead I said to all of them, and meant it, Congratulations." And aren't celebrations, let's face it, a good way to start new traditions, after all?

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Article by Regina Barreca
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